Last summer we took our dog Charlie on his first backpacking trip, and before we hit the trail, I had a lot of questions. Would he be physically fit enough to do it? Would his paws get cut up? Would he like carrying his own backpack? And what does Leave No Trace say about dog poop in the backcountry?
I did my homework, and fortunately, our trip backpacking with a dog was a huge success. Charlie absolutely loved it, and it made the trip more fun for us as well.
Here are 12 tips to help you and your pup have a fun-filled backpacking adventure!
1) Choose the right trail
The first step is to make sure the trail you want to hike is dog-friendly. Unfortunately, most trails in National Parks are off-limits to dogs. National Forest and BLM land is a good place to start your search. If you aren’t sure if dogs are allowed, call the park or ranger station.
Once you find out if the trail is dog-friendly, then there are a number of other factors to consider:
- Is there a lot of water available on the trail? If not, you’ll have to carry enough water for you AND your dog.
- How difficult is the trail?
- What is the temperature? Avoid places like the Southern Utah desert in the middle of July where there isn’t a lot of shade.
- Is there a lot of dangerous wildlife, like rattlesnakes or moose? If so, make sure you understand what to do if you come across an animal.
These are all questions to ask when narrowing down where to take your dog backpacking. Try to pick a trail that will be safe for you and your dog and avoid harsh environments that might put you at risk.
2) Make sure your dog is physically prepared
This goes hand in hand with choosing an appropriate trail. Not all dog breeds are meant for backpacking, such as bulldogs. If you don’t have a dog yet and are considering getting a dog to backpack with, do your research to make sure you end up with an active breed. As far as size, being small doesn’t mean a dog can’t go backpacking. It just means that you might need to help them get over obstacles on the trail. Smaller breeds also won’t be able to carry as much weight in their backpack.
If you’ve never been hiking with your dog, you should start with some short day hikes to see how your dog performs. Just like people, dogs need to condition. A dog that sits inside all day and doesn’t get regular exercise might not be able to hike 8-10 miles a day for consecutive days. So start slow and don’t push your dog beyond its physical limitations.
3) Keep your dog under your control at all times
Even if your dog is great off-leash, you never know what you might encounter when backpacking with a dog, so you should always keep a leash somewhere that you can quickly grab it and put it on your dog. Your dog might see a deer (or worse, a bear) and go ballistic, and without a leash, on hand, you don’t have an easy way to keep them close. Also if you run into other hikers, keeping your dog under your direct control is good trail etiquette. Even though it might be hard to believe 😃 not everyone wants your adorable (dirty slobbery) dog vying for their attention.
If you plan on letting your dog off-leash, make sure your dog is obedient and listens to your commands, before you leave for your trip. When you say come, your dog should come. If your dog isn’t under voice command, then tie the leash around your waist for easier, hands-free control – which is a great option especially for those of you who use trekking poles.
For the worst case scenario that your dog gets lost, your dog should also have up-to-date ID tags.
4) Give your dog a backpack
There’s going to be extra stuff you need to bring when backpacking with a dog, like dog food, treats, and poop bags. Allow your dog to participate and carry their own weight by using a doggy backpack.
You’ll want to measure your dog around its chest and choose a pack based on those measurements. Load it up at home and make sure the weight is evenly distributed so the pack doesn’t get lopsided when your dog is wearing it. Start with some short walks and hikes to make sure it’s a good fit and not going to cause any problems.
A good rule of thumb is to start with 10% of your dog’s weight, and if that goes well, then you can add more. Some dogs will be able to carry up to 25% of their body weight, others will need to stay on the lighter side. For more information on how to get your dog used to a backpack, see this article by Caesar Milan.
5) Make sure your dog gets adequate nutrition
Like you, your dog will be burning more calories than usual and will need extra food to maintain their energy levels. Make sure the food you bring is high in protein and nutrients, rather than filler so it actually fuels their activities.
Don't forget to pack high protein treats!
Should I put dog food in bear canister?
If you are traveling in bear country where you need a bear-proof canister, then yes, you should put all of your dog’s food and treats in the canister with the rest of your food. This will also protect the food from rodents. If you aren’t required to use a canister, then don’t leave the dog food in your pack unattended, as you might find it ransacked by a mouse.
6) Keep your dog hydrated
Keep a bowl of water for your dog at all times while you are at camp, and whenever you stop for water or a snack, see if your dog is thirsty. If they don’t drink it, you can always pour it back in your water bottle. When backpacking with a dog, keep an eye on their nose to make sure it doesn’t get too dry, which is an initial sign of dehydration.
Ruffwear makes lightweight collapsible bowls that will fit in the pockets of your dog’s backpack.
7) Filter your dog’s water
Just like you would filter your own water, you should also filter a dog’s water on a backpacking trip. Don’t just scoop water directly from a stream into their bowl. They are susceptible to the same pathogens, like giardiasis, as we are, and a sick dog on the trail is not a good thing.
8) Keep your dog cool in the heat
Heat exhaustion is a common problem that you’ll want to watch out for (in your dog and yourself). If it’s really hot out, take plenty of breaks in the shade, stay hydrated, and if a safe opportunity arises for your dog to splash around in the water, let them have some fun. *Just don’t let them get in a swift river where they could get swept away.
Another option is a cooling vest. You dip this in water, put it on your dog (you can put it under his backpack), and it helps keep your dog’s core cool. We haven’t tried one on Charlie yet, but we will consider bringing one of these on any summer backpacking trips we go on.
9) Protect your dog’s paws while backpacking
Rocky trails can do a number on your dog’s paws. You’ll want to check your dog’s paws for cuts and rubbing to prevent anything minor from becoming major. We’ve tried the dog booties, but Charlie couldn’t stand them. Instead, we’ve found that a wax-based product called Musher’s Secret works for preventing cuts and cracking. When we hike with Charlie, we put it on his paws in the morning before the hike and at the end of the day. It moisturizes the paws and creates a protective barrier when your dog is walking on rough surfaces.
10) Keep an eye on them at night
At night at camp, it’s nice to give your dog a little freedom to roam around, but you’ll want to keep an eye on them at all times. An easy way to keep track of their whereabouts, so you can relax, is it to put a small light on their collar. That way if they go over to a bush to take a pee, you don’t freak out about where they went.
11) Follow Leave No Trace Practices with your dog’s Poop
Leave No Trace principles apply to dog poop, just like human poop. All poop, human or dog, should be buried in a cathole 6-8” deep and then covered with dirt so it can decompose. All poops should take place at least 200 feet of a water source. If your dog happens to go closer than that, use your poop shovel to pick it up and carry it to a cathole that is 200 feet away. This is very important for keeping the trail clean for others and protecting the drinking water supply along the trail. We like to store the shovel in a ziplock bag inside Charlie’s backpack.
12) Know your dog first aid
Knowing basic dog first aid is important so you know how to deal with anything minor and prevent emergency situations. We just published a detailed blog post on dog first aid, written by a veterinarian. Check that post out to get educated!
13) Give your dog room to sleep in your tent
When choosing a tent for your backpacking trip, round up. If you are two people + a dog, then bring a 3-man tent so your dog has its own space. You’ll all sleep better and wake up feeling more energized for your day on the trail. We like to bring an extra Thermarest closed cell pad, which only weighs 10 ounces, and we put that in our dog’s area in our tent so he has a little cushion when he might be feeling sore from the hike. This also insulates your dog from the cold ground if the temperatures drop at night.